“Why, She Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly”

This week I killed a cockroach and it made me cry.

First things first: I don’t know whether the fact there was a roach in my kitchen sink is a referendum on my housekeeping or just related to the fact that I live in an old apartment building on the first floor with windows facing out to the street, where I often see big-ass roaches on the sidewalk at night while walking my dog. Probably six of one, half a dozen of the other. 

Second, this wasn’t some regular little roach. This was like a three or four inch guy, a roach so big he was transcending insect and approaching being an animal. There’s a different relationship between killing a bug that is but a speck and killing a bug who looks like he could pick up one of my forks.

Third, a few years back I took Buddhist vows (the Five Precepts) that included the vow to refrain from harming living things. To be fair I regularly break this vow; while I have cut beef and pork from my diet, and while my growing lactose intolerance makes me opt for dairy substitutes more often, I still devour foul and fish. What’s more, my general lifestyle cannot be claimed cruelty-free because I do not pay attention to the origins of my clothes and stuff. 

All that said, at about the time I took those vows I talked to one of my teachers about sticking to that particular one. I was still chowing down on burgers at that point, and I was trying to figure out what my ethical boundaries needed to be. He, like many other wise Buddhists, told me that the Precepts were guidelines, not commandments. I wouldn’t be bounced out of Buddhism for eating bacon.

But, he told me, he had been recently getting more serious about the no harm Precept in his own life. His home had a lot of flies in it, and they bugged the shit out of him, especially on hot days. He had previously kept a flyswatter at his desk and had made a practice of slamming flies into mush at every opportunity, but lately he had cut this out. He was letting the flies live. 

What he found was that when he respected the right of the flies to live – when he kept in mind that they were living beings just doing what they needed to do to get by, and that while they were irritating they were not harming him or his family – he began to be more patient with his family. Just this little change, the mindfulness of the perspective of the smallest of creatures, had set off a domino effect in his thinking so that when he had conflict with his wife or kids he gained an extra second of time to consider their perspectives.

I liked that. As someone whose journey in Buddhism began largely in an attempt to gain control of my anger and resentments, this seemed like a good practice. And so for the past few years I have tried very hard to kill no bugs. This can be a challenge, as I’m terribly arachnophobic, but I began reminding myself that the terrifying spiders were actually taking care of other bugs, thus keeping my place free of flies and things that might tempt me to kill them.

It’s hard to say exactly what impact this had; I quit eating red meat and pork not long after, and I’ve been a meditator and in recovery for a few years now. What changes in me are caused by sitting on the cushion as opposed to letting spiders live? I’ll tell you this, and it’s something I haven’t told anyone else: I talk to my spiders like roommates now, and while I claim no St Francis-like ability to actually communicate, the spiders absolutely leave me alone. They stick to their corners and spots and do not intrude on my space. 

I will say that this practice can backfire; the acknowledgement that all living things are just going about their day trying to feel happy and safe is fine, but it can be hard to apply to humans. See, I get real condescending about it – this dog barking all night doesn’t know any better, so I can’t be mad at it. But the human blasting music at night DOES know better, so fuck that guy and truly I hope he dies in his sleep. 

 But this is a false dichotomy; people who are irritating us are almost always – like 99.99% of the time – doing so because they think they need to do this irritating thing in order to feel happy or safe. They’re usually very self-oriented and don’t think about what impact they’re having on others. They’re not being malicious, they’re just confused. By remembering they’re confused I get the opportunity to take back some of my angry judgment, but it’s still hard.

I work at a coffee shop and you’d be shocked at how dumb some of the people coming through can be. Weirdly I find these folks more agitating than the rude ones; the rude ones I can understand are suffering and taking their suffering out on me, and I can look at them as opportunities to practice lovingkindness on people who can really use it. But the people who can’t figure out how to order a coffee? Holy shit, they get my goat. 

Or the people who order sugary drinks at 8AM for their kids (they make sure the drink with 88 grams of sugar has no caffeine in it, though). Man, I get irritated with these people. They’re not harming me, and who am I to judge how they live their lives? And yet I do. 

But in these moments I can pull from the same wisdom that keeps me from squashing any passing bug (I used to be a real Genghis Khan when it came to bugs on the sidewalk  – I’d squash bugs just for the satisfying crunch) and remember that these people are just doing what they think they need to do to feel happy and safe. Maybe they’re wrong, but that’s not my business. It’s funny, as a sober person I don’t have this condescending feeling about people who clearly have drinking problems, but I do with people who eat terribly. I think this says a lot about my own relationship to my own disordered eating than anything else.

Anyway, while I’m no saint I think that the practice of not killing bugs has led me to have more patience; I couldn’t have done this service industry job without my sobriety and Buddhism. In my experience it’s the small changes you make that end up having the biggest effects because they’re changes that you can maintain, and they’re changes that subtly impact the way you think.

So back to this roach. I had just had a very nice day out; I’ve been dating a new person and the relationship, while new, is vibrant and affectionate and makes me feel like a whole human being again. I walked into my apartment feeling pretty good and I flipped on the kitchen light and there, in the sink, was this behemoth. 

I froze. The roach was so big I could easily see the serrated little barbs on his back legs. Just huge. It ran a little distance, but not that fast – it ran with a relaxed attitude that told me it knew it had the upper hand.

If I had awoken to find the roach on my arm and I had smashed it I wouldn’t have felt that bad; it would have been an instinctual reaction. But I didn’t lash out and smash the roach, I stood there frozen a moment and calculated.

First I filled a cup with water and tried drowning the roach. I poured cup after cup on the beast and he just ran around, waterlogged. He ended up on his back a couple of times and I hoped that was the end of it, but he would right himself again. His will to live was strong. 

After a few minutes of waterboarding this fucking roach I walked out of the kitchen to gather my thoughts. I calculated more. I looked around the house for things with I could smash the roach, taking into account what I would want to get roach guts on and what could be safely used in a sink that had glasses and mugs in it. I couldn’t find anything.

Then I thought about my all-purpose lemon scented cleaner. I picked up the bottle and sprayed the roach, and within seconds the poor motherfucker was curling up and shriveling. It was clear there was pain being experienced by the roach. He finally curled up quite tightly, his rear legs twitching. I picked up a mug and finished him off, and his white guts poked out of his ass.

I almost immediately burst into tears. It wasn’t a conscious thing, and I didn’t feel it coming. It just happened. I think some of it was emotional disregulation – I had come from a very wonderful day to find myself in a stressful situation that made my home feel gross to me. The pendulum swing was intense, and I wasn’t being mindful of my experience,  and that could have accounted for the tears.

But as I explored the feeling I understood that I was at least a little bit crying about the way I had so clearly broken my vow and so cruelly killed this roach. This was a bad death for an insect who was just trying to go about his business – he was likely in my sink getting a drink. The amount of time I had spent killing him could have been spent collecting him and throwing him outside (I have been doing this with the few spiders who leave their acceptable areas). But I had so much fear of this roach – he grossed me out so totally – that the thought of catching him in a glass was too much. I would have wanted to throw the glass away, a totally irrational thought. 

I felt like a failure, and as I thought about that I could see all the other small ways I had been failing to live up to my own standards lately. I had been cranky and unfriendly at work. I had been tweeting snarky things and then deleting them (I mean, at least I was deleting them, but did they need to be tweeted in the first place?). I had been reading stories about people being oppressed and found myself thinking “Jesus, stop whining.” In other words I had been backsliding in a lot of small ways. 

Here’s what’s great, though: the fact that it was the killing of a roach that stopped me in my tracks is huge progress. I didn’t have to get to the place where I was yelling at a loved one or being mean to someone I dislike or, God forbid, relapsing to recognize I was off my game. By being mindful of my experience and by trying to maintain small ethical guidelines I had alerted myself to behavior that pointed out a trend I’d like to reverse. 

I know what caused all of this. My recovery program has been garbage lately. Sheer trash. I’ve barely been meditating. I’ve spent too much time on social media, ingesting psychic toxins. My diet has been off the rails. All of these things have been obvious to me for some time, but my behavior with the roach was the slap in the face I needed to actually start taking some action and trying to get back on all these various wagons. 

The journey is never a straight line – we always double back and backslide and have to walk the same patch of ground four or five times before we get the hang of it – and one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to become aware very early when we’re fucking up. We can set up these little triplines that set off an alarm that wakes us up from our deluded state and reminds us how we’re trying to live. Those tears I shed for killing this roach were my alarm bells going off.

Now I just have to figure out how to deal with the next Godzilla-sized roach I see in my apartment.